Philadelphia Water Main Break: Just a Taste of What’s to Come?

The Water Quality and Health Council has been sending out warnings about a serious and potentially deadly problem facing the US population posed by our aging piped water infrastructure (see our “Pain at the Pipe” Part 1 and Part 2 blog posts).  We are not alone in issuing this warning.  In May, the American Water Works Association released the disturbing report:  Buried No Longer:  Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge, highlighting the serious need for water systems across North America to invest in water infrastructure.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water system a sorry grade of D minus in its 2009 Report Card of America’s Infrastructure.

The problem is particularly acute in the regions representing the 13 original colonies where infrastructure is older.  The average ages of water mains in Washington, DC and Philadelphia are 77 and 78 years respectively; this is comparable to the 80 year average for Richmond.  While the US also has issues with aging roads and bridges on which the country relies, the drinking water infrastructure is generally older and its failure will have more pervasive, serious and prolonged effects.  While not a pleasant thought, a bridge or road failure can be deadly and cause injuries.  Naturally, any preventative death is a tragedy, but a water system failure has the potential to cause more death and disease than most structural failures.

The residents of the City of Brotherly Love recently experienced two serious water main breaks within one week, disrupting and inconveniencing thousands of people and exacting an untold cost in property damage.  The video above opens with images of the urban sinkhole that formed on Sunday night, July 22, when a 100 year old, four-foot diameter water main ruptured beneath a South Philadelphia traffic intersection.  Basements flooded and more than 100 families were affected; their water was shut off for over a week, and many people had their automobiles damaged as the torrent of water flooded cars in garages and on the streets.  The water main break triggered another calamity:  As asphalt caved into the growing sinkhole, it ruptured a gas main, requiring immediate attention.  Electrical lines and traffic were re-routed; one street is expected to be closed for several weeks.

An eight inch water main break occurred exactly one week later in Northeast Philadelphia, also flooding a neighborhood and damaging homes.

Symptoms of a Growing Problem

Frequent water main breaks in older US cities are just a taste of what’s to come if we as a nation do not address the systemic problem of leaking and cracking water mains.  It is unfortunate timing that our infrastructure needs have become dire at a time of national economic hardship, but by ignoring those needs, we postpone the inevitable at an ever-growing cost.  We outlined some of the major social and economic costs of ignoring drinking water infrastructure needs in a previous post, stressing the potentially disastrous consequences of complacency.

Some people view this problem as belonging strictly to the water provider, the water regulatory group and/or the local government.  It comes as a surprise when they are hit with a bill for damage to property (e.g., homes, apartments, automobiles) and their contents.  Thus, cars that were damaged in this incident cost the owners at least their insurance deductible (just ask Rebeccah Bernard, a full-time student at Chestnut Hill College).

Urban life without a reliable ample supply of clean water via a network of pipes is extremely difficult, perhaps unsustainable.  In many cities the municipal water system has functioned so well for so long, that maintenance and upgrading have become low priorities.  The question is not “Will such systems fail?” but “How bad will it be WHEN failure occurs?”  A week of dual disasters in Philadelphia demonstrates we ignore our aging infrastructure at our INDIVIDUAL peril.

Bruce Bernard, PhD, is President of SRA International, Inc. and Associate Editor of the International Journal of Toxicology.